Gender Equality and Women's Rights still a far cry in South Asia
By Arshi Baig
Follow @ arshi_baige
Jan 7, Oslo: The years 1215 and 1948 are historically significant as they marked the creation of two very important documents, namely the Magna Carta and the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The contents of these crucial documents has reverberated in the constitution of many counties across the globe and demands for the fair and equal treatment of every individual regardless of their gender or background. Over decades, individuals began understanding the value of these rights and subsequently respecting them.
However, when people infringe on the human rights of others, they begin violating them. For instance, the UNICEF estimates that approximately 200 million girls and women have undergone the process of female genital mutilation around the world. Women, in particular, have been partially or completely stripped of their human rights in many parts of the world such as in South Asian countries.
South Asia consists of 8 nations; Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In the region of South Asia, issues regarding gender inequality prevail extensively and the violation of women’s rights has become a commonplace. Many organizations are currently tackling issues such as the educational and social disparity that exists in the society of these nations.
In India, discrimination bases on caste, creed, age, color or religion is considered a violation of the constitution of India. Ironically, the prevalence of heinous crimes against women are extremely high. In 1992, Bhanwari Devi was gang-raped by men from a higher caste than herself because these men were riled by her attempts to bring child marriage in her family to a halt. Her case was brought to court but, the men who attacked her remained uncharged because the judges believed that the reported episode could not have occurred as men from a higher caste would never want to rape women from a lower caste. It is evident that the abuse, of a sexual nature, that Bhanwari suffered was exacerbated by the discrimination she faced due to her gender and societal status, and marked as a violation of her human rights. Furthermore, in the South Asian nation of Bangladesh, a United Nations (UN) report stated that 1 in every 8 men in the rural part of Bangladesh has sexually violated women.
Other forms of physical violence such as the throwing of acid on women has been on the rise in South Asian counties such as India. The societal norms in India often portray men on a pedestal. Many women who have rejected marriage proposals or have asked for a divorce soon became victims of acid attacks. The perpetrators of these crimes tend to be individuals who are male acquaintances whose intent is to gain revenge. Moreover, acid is usually chosen as it is readily available and can be purchased for a small amount. Many victims are unable to seek medical help as most of these attacks take place in the more rural parts of the country, as a result of this, countless lives are lost and many offenders remain unpunished.
The prevalence of domestic violence in the nations of South Asia serves as another violation of the human rights of women. The patriarchal nature of society in these countries often results in women being the subject of domestic violence incidents. The victims of abuse are often left with a rapidly deteriorating self-esteem and psychological trauma that is capable of inflicting long-term damage to their lives. For example, many recently married women are constantly harassed by their husbands because the bride’s family was unable to offer a substantial dowry. In some cases, the abuse caused has lead to the newly married bride committing suicide. In Pakistan, 2000 women die each year due to dowry-related abuse, this is the highest reported figure so far. The National Crime Records Bureau in India reported that every 9 minutes, one episode of violence by either the relatives or the victim’s husband occurs and approximately 70% of women face domestic abuse by their partners. Such statistics merely highlight the scale of the issue and call for the implementation of better laws and support to be provided to the victims. The introduction of legislation to govern this situation is not solely sufficient, there also needs to be a change in attitudes.
The human rights of some women are violated in the name of culture and tradition. For instance, in the Indian city of Mumbai, certain communities practice the barbaric procedure of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Many undergo this crude procedure at a young age and are informed that this practice will make them socially acceptable. The process is usually carried out without the application of any local or general anesthesia, and the woman is not offered any antibiotics. FGM causes psychological and physical damage that is detrimental for the women’s heath in the long-term. Again, this is also another grave violation of a woman’s fundamental rights as a human being.
In other parts of South Asia, women have been denied the right over their own reproductive health. Women residing in the more rural regions do not get to decide if they want to be pregnant as they lack both the medical resources and education regarding contraception. The most common method of contraception in the Indian subcontinent is the sterilization of females. The government of India funds camps that have been set up solely for sterilization. However, these camps lack sanitation and poor hygiene is maintained during the surgical procedure. In one such camp run in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, thirteen women died due to a serious bacterial infection in their blood, known as septicemia. In 2006, an inquiry into the conditions of the camp revealed that surgeons were asked to conduct 83 surgical procedures within hours, it should be noted that this significantly exceeds their limit of 30 surgical procedures per day.
The trafficking of young women is a serious problem in South Asia. Many women are trafficked across borders for various reasons such as, labor or prostitution. For instance, thousands of women are trafficked each year from Nepal into India. Along the length of the border between India and Nepal, exists the worlds busiest course for the trafficking of individuals. Women from Nepal are coerced into working in the sex industry in India. Upon being sold, these women soon become the ‘property’ of the brothel owners who take majority of their wages and provide the women will little food on some occasions. Women who are trafficked are usually from disadvantageous backgrounds and have received little or no education. Trafficking causes women to be more vulnerable to diseases such as HIV, that is often looked at as a death sentence due to the stigma it carries. The exploitation of women has become a severe issue and is also a violation of their human rights.
The ratio of males to females in most South Asian countries is extremely swayed towards males as there are significantly less women who reach the age of 18. A major reason sited for this gap has been the presence of abortion solely based on sex and female infanticide. The sex of the fetus is of importance to parents as it determines if a dowry needs to be payed (if it is a girl child). As mentioned above, not being able to pay the appropriate sum can lead to disastrous consequences not only for the bride, but also for her parents. Therefore, bearing a girl child is often looked as a heavy burden. According to an Indian Minister, Maneka Gandhi, 2000 females are killed each day in India, either before or soon after their birth. The Indian government has begun to take steps to bring sex-selective abortion and female infanticide to a halt by the introduction of various schemes that aim to protect and educate children of the female gender.
Article 26 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states that every human being has the right to education, this right is often taken for grated in several region across the globe. However, in many parts of South Asian nations, there is an educational disparity among the two sexes. The rate of males enrolled onto primary school is greater than that of females. This gap is significantly wider in certain countries such as Afghanistan where, the female literacy rate is only 24.2% whereas, their male counterparts have a literacy rate of 52%. The Taliban’s disinclination towards education accounts for the low rates of literacy among the general population in Afghanistan. Furthermore, in many regions, women are discouraged from pursuing higher education. Currently, there is a lot being done to help improve these figures and bridge this existing discrepancy.
The gender pay gap is a concerning issue in many parts of the world, including South Asian countries. The Human Developmental report has sited that women spend approximately 2/3rd of their time on unpaid jobs whereas, males only spend 1/4th of their time on unpaid jobs. Furthermore, in Nepal, women are forced to work 21 hours more than men each week whereas, in India, women are forced to work 12 hours more. Women are forced to work for a lower income and their employers refuse to give them access to primary healthcare. The gap in wages in India was approximately 24.81%. The reason behind this gender-specific discrimination is primarily because women are often seen as ‘less able’ to carry out work as efficiently as their male counterparts. Moreover, women are constantly being denied equal access to land and property. In Pakistan and India, vast majority of women do not tend to get a share of the land and properties that are passed down by their parents. However, through the introduction of new legislation, such as the Hindu Succession Act of 2005 which allowed women in India equal rights to property, many advances are being made.
Women face discrimination in the political sphere in South Asian counties. The United Nations International Center for Research on Women conducted a study that concluded that approximately 3000 women in India are unable to stand in the race for various political offices due to issues such as illiteracy, the existing domestic responsibilities, the availability of fewer leadership opportunities as compared to men, and the presence of discrimination in the legal setting. The social norms that govern these regions often expect a woman to look after her children and take care of any domestic tasks, this makes it extremely difficult for a woman to pursue her career pathway. Furthermore, in countries that show signs of poor and sluggish economic growth, such as Afghanistan, many women are lacking the means to pay for domestic support. However, gradually women are beginning to take up various positions both in and outside the political environment. For instance, 50% of individuals in the medical field in Afghanistan are female and in 2014, approximately 20.7% of representatives elected in public offices in Pakistan were female (as compared to the 17.8% in the United States).
The different issues presented merely serve to highlight the severity of violating the human rights of women in South Asian countries. Albeit, society has come a long way in terms of respecting the human rights of women, there is still considerable amount of work that needs to be done. These tasks can only be achieved by the cooperation of all the governmental bodies that make up South Asia. Initiatives such as the South Asian Association for Regional Corporation (SAARC), which involves most of the nations of South Asia, are highly instrumental in providing a platform for the respective countries to work on goals towards improving the lives of all their citizens. Moreover, support from international bodies such as the United Nations, are capable of providing a vital driving force that will eventually bridge the gender disparity that exists today.
The Oslo Times International News Network